Summer Reads 2023

Our contributors pick books to make sense of a tumultuous summer

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August 9, 2023

There is a distinct literary genre associated with imperial peripheries. In Britain, it is known as Greeneland, the world of Graham Greene — those dusty forgotten outposts where morality is suspended, the political illusions of the metropole are laid bare, and lost men are free to sin beyond judgement. It is a 20th-century genre, cognisant of evil and its consequences. Today, as our nightmares are once again filled with foreign wars, dubious casus belli, and mercenaries who operate beyond national flags, it is refreshing to return there, a place where cynicism breaks bread with truth.

Denis Johnson’s novel The Stars at Noon (1986) is the great American example of this form, a wet, hallucinatory junket through the jaws of hell that foreign interventions can become — in this case, 1984 Nicaragua, as CIA-backed Contras wage war on the Sandinista government. One of Johnson’s lesser-known works, the novel takes the form of an anti-travelogue narrated by an unnamed young American woman who will definitely not be documenting this unaesthetic excursion for Instagram.

The book begins with submachine guns in a grimy Managua McDonald’s, an American outpost patronised by horny officials and soldiers of the junta. It is here that we learn that our narrator may or may not be some kind of journalist, or at least aspires to be one, but for now is selling sex in an effort to acquire enough hard currency to purchase a flight out of Nicaragua.

This has led to her being sexually extorted by local officials, who are gratuitously taking advantage of her fallen position while promising to help. And she has fallen very far. Before this, we learn that she worked as a human rights observer with an organisation called Eyes for Peace. After bearing witness to the suffering of others, she quickly became disillusioned with this line of work — in her world, the word “humanitarian” has acquired a sinister meaning. Other exalted concepts — “justice”, “liberty”, “equality” — are equally scorned. “I’ll show you liberty and some of that other bullshit,” she tells one character.

We follow our young American to the bar at the InterContinental Hotel, where the assembled international press corps is drinking heavily and complaining about the lack of “bang bang”. It is better in Beirut, they all concur. But our narrator is similarly unimpressed with them: “As the cabdriver had understood they would be, several journalists were drinking here tonight, the usual bunch, every one the sort of person who really ought to be shot dead right away.”

It is in this sad hotel bar, among these war tourists, that our narrator first meets her love interest. He is a bland British consultant (“pudding-like and ghostly”), who works for an oil company. “Consultant” is another opaque, sinister-sounding vocation in these parts, and she implores him “not to go into detail” about his dealings. “The Englishman”, as she calls him, is remarkable only for his total lack of remarkability (elsewhere, she notes that he reminds her of a cloud, with a vaporous, forgettable face and white skin). And this is a central point of the book: the title comes from a line from an W.S. Merwin poem, “what we are looking for / in each other / is each other / the stars at noon / while the light worships its blind god”. This is a love story rooted in narcissistic idealisation and self-delusion, with the libidinous political tumult and tropical locale lending the affair a frisson it would not otherwise have. Back in London or New York, we imagine, these two might never give each other a second look.

The political drama is as nebulous as “the Englishman” himself. We eventually learn that he has engaged in industrial espionage. His oil company, along with the Costa Ricans, knew of some possible oil deposits beneath Lake Nicaragua, and in the interest of “fairness” — and perhaps vague political sympathies with enemy states, though like the rest of him, these remain gestural — he passed them on to the Nicaraguans. But the Nicaraguans informed the Costa Ricans of this duplicity, and soon the lovers are pursued by the security services of several state agencies at once, including the omnipresent CIA. Under increasingly unbearable surveillance, the pair make a long, dramatic dash for the border. It is significant that it is the Englishman’s ostensibly “humanitarian” act that triggers this panicked chase. In proxy wars, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

Read some 40 years after the counter-revolutionary war in Nicaragua, The Stars at Noon feels exhilarating, even liberatory. In more ways than one, Johnson’s novel is an escape, unencumbered by tedious contemporary puritanism. No one is mythologised in Johnson’s world, and we are invited to mock and revile both the dull revolutionaries and “the stupid CIA”.

This kind of cynicism in war is not new in literature, but it almost feels that way filtered through a female narrator. Johnson gives us a young woman in excruciating circumstances who is nonetheless not the traumatised female subject of so much millennial women’s writing, reflexively narrativising her experiences through the lens of victimisation. As Caitlín Doherty has written: “MeToo’s impact is detectable not in any political transformation among the professional women who comprised its constituency, but rather in the desiccated dregs of a ‘feminist’ linguistic mode: a speaker who narrates in the first-person, invokes the literary and wants you to know of her pain.” Though our narrator is mistreated by men, she always has something that they don’t: the knowledge that these men, however powerful in the present circumstances, are pathetic, even pitiful.

“Not that the pleasure and comfort of an incompetent small-time official in a floundering greasy banana regime surmounts my every concern, but all men tend to grow innocent, wouldn’t you agree, at the breast,” she muses during one unfortunate encounter. “You can’t help but feeling a little something, if only a small, sharp pity, as if you’d just stepped on a baby bird.”

Young women in the contemporary West have not lived under the top-down institutionalised patriarchy found elsewhere in the world, but this is precisely how women who do have to navigate it: by viewing powerful men not as totems of unearned privilege, but as pathetic prisoners of their own desire and therefore riddled with weaknesses to exploit. That Johnson was able to understand this as a man suggests that “lived experience” is not the only kind that illuminates: in this novel, he gives his female narrator a more powerful, eviscerating voice than most contemporary women would grant themselves. For that, he would undoubtedly be indicted by certain literary puritans today — for failing to make his female narrator sufficiently disempowered, or for writing in the voice of a woman at all.

Yet Johnson’s female narrator is also self-evidently him. The Stars at Noon was written after his own trip to Nicaragua, where he had hoped to produce an article on the revolution for a magazine. Instead, it was during this trip that he realised that he could never be a journalist. He reportedly flew home, fell into a depression and wrote this book. Certain details — the professional journalists in Managua restaurants observed with a mixture of envy and disgust — are clearly lifted from his own experience. At one point early on, Johnson’s narrator calls the editor of a magazine in the US with a desperate pitch; he laughs before hanging up on her. Among other things, this is a book about failure. And this, too, is refreshing in an era in which writers are more invested in constructing the identity of a writer on social media than they are in writing.

Last year, the French director Claire Denis released a film based on the book. It is a fine enough adaptation, capturing something of the sensual yet sickly atmosphere of the novel, though Denis opted to lift the story from its original Cold War context and resituate it in present day, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the film, the run-down InterContinental Hotel has been partly transformed into a grimy Covid hospital, with a menacing biomedical security regimen and unsmiling guards carrying submachine guns. The story loses something essential set in the present, as the voluptuous and ideological Cold War setting is swapped for our vacuous, post-ideological Cold War 2.0, wherein dictatorship and democracy alike are drifting towards a tech-facilitated authoritarianism. If the movie feels less substantive than the book, then it’s partly because our times are hollower, too.

But how would the contemporary commentator, trained to reflexively pincer apart each piece of media for hidden loci of oppression, react to the novel it is based on? For one, it’s a story that “centres” the experiences of two white Westerners in Nicaragua. Further, our narrator is not interested in signalling awareness of her “positionality”, her “privilege” and her “Westernness”. But, at a time when the CIA would probably employ the language of decolonisation to justify arming the Contras, it is invigorating to read outsiders who are allowed to be simple outsiders. The narrator of The Stars at Noon belongs to the American pantheon of drifters, losers, outsiders, drunks and dreamers. These are not figures that “speak over” local voices, to use the bloodless academic-activist parlance, but from beneath them, as they come from below.